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Raymond Chandler: An American Classic

Raymond Chandler: An American Classic

Ninety years ago the literary career of one of America’s greatest writers of popular, and distinctively American, fiction began.

Michael Mandelbaum


He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated grey flannel slacks, and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

The voice is distinctive. Indeed, for anyone familiar with the author’s writings, it’s unmistakable. The vivid details, the arresting simile, and the jaundiced humor could only have come from Raymond Chandler. They appear on the first page of Farewell, My Lovely, the second of his seven novels. There the protagonist, hero, and narrator of that and the other books, Philip Marlowe, one of the most memorable characters in American fiction, is encountering, for the first time, Moose Malloy, an ex-convict who will play a significant role in the confusing and dangerous events in which Marlowe will become entangled.

Chandler published his first story exactly ninety years ago, in 1933. Thus began a literary career of, among other things, remarkable upward mobility. It started in the pages of “pulp fiction” magazines, so called because they were printed on cheap wood pulp paper. Ultimately Chandler gained entry to the Mount Olympus of American letters, the Library of America, which includes two volumes of his writings. His career began, that is, in a format designed to be thrown away and ended in one intended to last forever.

He was born in Chicago but grew up in England, where he attended the public (in American terms private) secondary school Dulwich College, also the alma mater of another great English-born stylist of popular fiction who worked in America, P. G. Wodehouse, as well, more recently as the noted journalist Tunku Varadarajan. Chandler returned to the United States, held various jobs, began writing, and the rest is American literary history.

As with the other authors honored by inclusion in the Library of America, it is, in the end, the quality of his prose that put him there. Here are some examples from his first novel, The Big Sleep:

 · “Behind the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs.”
 · “. . . she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith.”
 · “The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.”
 · “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”
 · “I went back to the office and sat in my swivel chair and tried to catch up on my foot-dangling.”

Chandler excelled at dialogue as well as metaphors. In Farewell, My Lovely Marlow is meeting a client:

'I’m afraid I don’t like your manner,' he said, using the edge of his voice.
'I’ve had complaints about it,' I said. ‘But nothing seems to do any good. Let’s look at this job a little. You want a bodyguard, but he can’t wear a gun. You want a helper, but he isn’t supposed to know what he’s supposed to do. You want me to risk my neck without knowing why or what for or what the risk is. What are you offering for all this?'
'I hadn’t really got around to thinking about it,' he said. His cheekbones were dusky red.
'Do you suppose you could get around to thinking about it?'

Raymond Chandler is important in the history of English-language letters as the most prominent representative of a popular literary genre that is distinctively American: the hardboiled detective story, whose protagonist is toughened by experience and without illusions. The other major practitioners include his predecessor, Dashiell Hammett, and his successors Ross McDonald and Walter Moseley, the last two of whose detectives, like Philip Marlowe, operate in Los Angeles. The hard-boiled approach can be appreciated by a comparison with another genre, roughly contemporary with it and having some features in common with, but also some defining differences from, what Chandler wrote.

That other genre is the English detective story, whose mass appeal began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and reached its zenith in the interwar period with the novels of Dorothy Sayers featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, Margery Allingham’s books about Albert Campion, and, above all, the works of Agatha Christie, whose two most famous characters, the shrewd village spinster Miss Jane Marple and the fastidious Belgian Hercule Poirot, are both, like Holmes, Wimsey, Campion and Marlowe as well, private citizens and not members of the police force.

Both the English and hardboiled mysteries begin with a murder, and in each the plot involves the detective discovering the person who has committed it. The best of them have endings that the reader did not anticipate, and that is true, as well, of Chandler’s Marlowe novels. The two types differ, however, in three major ways. One is their respective settings. Chandler described the difference when he wrote that he was “trying to get murder away from the upper classes, the weekend house party, and the vicar’s rose-garden, and back to the people who are really good at it.”

Second, the English detective is, in literary terms, the rough equivalent of the Greek dramatic device the deus ex machina. He or she parachutes, figuratively, into the plot in the wake of the crime, uses his or her extraordinary power of intellect, intuition, and observation to work out what has happened, and identifies the culprit–often, as in the Poirot stories, in a climactic scene in which all the suspects are assembled in a single room.

The hardboiled detective, by contrast, is a hero. In the course of his work, and unlike Holmes, Poirot, and the others, he must undergo trials of various kinds. Marlowe not only investigates violence, he experiences it himself, and often emerges from those encounters dazed and bruised. His is a dangerous business. In addition, he must call upon reserves not only of physical bravery but also moral courage. He must remain true to his own moral code, despite powerful incentives to stray from it. More than once he allows a person whom he knows has committed a murder to go free. He is also persistent, indeed obstinate. Chandler’s detective repeatedly encounters people who try to threaten or to bribe him into abandoning the case he is pursuing.

In contrast to the English detective, who comes across as a one-dimensional character, albeit with some endearing eccentricities, Marlowe is a kind of chivalric knight-errant. In The High Window another character calls him a “shop-soiled Galahad.” In a 1944 essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder” Chandler writes this about his detective:

. . . down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid . . . He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.

The third major difference between the two sub-genres of mystery stories is that by catching the murderer the English detective restores the social and moral order that the murder has disrupted. It is perhaps no accident that this particular kind of detective novel became especially popular in England in the wake of World War I, which created a terrible breach in English life and left, in its wake, a powerful yearning to return to what had been normal before 1914.

The Marlowe novels, by contrast, do not so much restore the moral order as reveal it, and it is not a pretty sight. At the root of the mystery that, at no small risk to himself, he untangles, he invariably finds corruption–wealthy citizens of Los Angeles and gangsters (sometimes they are the same people) who ignore the rules by which others have to live and public institutions that let them get away with it. The police do not come off well in the Chandler opus. The Long Goodbye ends this way: “I never saw any of them again–except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.” In that same book another character expresses the way Marlowe, and presumably Chandler himself, see the world: “Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.” The Marlowe novels are, in their way and without being obvious, populist tracts.

Like the vintage English mysteries, the Marlowe novels have been brought to the screen. Just as several actors have played Christie’s Poirot but one of them–David Suchet–truly defines the character, so several actors have played Chandler’s detective but the first of them, Humphrey Bogart, defines Philip Marlowe. Bogart appears in the film of The Big Sleep.

Admirable though it is, the movie version of The Big Sleep is unfaithful to the book, and to the character, in an important way. Inserted into the movie is a romance between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who plays one of the sisters of the family that employs Marlowe. Their relationship follows the trajectory of a romantic comedy: the two dislike each other at first but end up together. That doesn’t happen to Chandler’s Marlowe. Unlike the English detectives, he has no real colleagues, such as Holmes’s Doctor Watson or Poirot’s Captain Hastings, nor a wife, or permanent girlfriend, or family of any kind. With the exception of the last, unfinished novel, Poodle Springs, which the writer Robert Parker completed after Chandler’s death, in which he is briefly married, Marlowe moves through the world by himself. He is a man alone with his sardonic wit, his jaundiced view of the society in which he lives, and his unbreakable moral code.‌‌

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower(2022).

Image: Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 movie trailer for "The Big Sleep." (Warner Brothers)

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